Unlocking the next generation of wireless communications

Penn Engineers have developed an adjustable filter, about the size of a quarter, with potential to revolutionize wireless communications.

In the early 2010s, LightSquared, a multibillion-dollar startup promising to revolutionize cellular communications, declared bankruptcy. The company couldn’t figure out how to prevent its signals from interfering with those of GPS systems.

Now, Penn Engineers have developed a new tool that could prevent such problems from ever happening again: an adjustable filter that can successfully prevent interference, even in higher-frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Gloved hand holding a quarter next to the filter to indicate its small size.
 The new filter, which is about the size of a quarter, could revolutionize wireless communications. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Engineering)

“I hope it will enable the next generation of wireless communications,” says Troy Olsson, associate professor in Electrical and Systems Engineering (ESE) at Penn Engineering and the senior author of a new paper in Nature Communications that describes the filter.

The electromagnetic spectrum itself is one of the modern world’s most precious resources; only a tiny fraction of the spectrum, mostly radio waves, representing less than one billionth of one percent of the overall spectrum, is suitable for wireless communication.

To date, wireless communications have mostly used lower-frequency bands. “Right now we work from 600 MHz to 6 GHz,” says Olsson. “That’s 5G, 4G, 3G.” Wireless devices use different filters for different frequencies, with the effect that covering all frequencies or bands requires large numbers of filters that take up substantial space. (The typical smartphone includes upwards of 100 filters, to ensure that signals from different bands don’t interfere with one another.)

“The FR3 band is most likely to roll out for 6G or Next G,” says Olsson, referring to the next generation of cellular networks, “and right now the performance of small-filter and low-loss switch technologies in those bands is highly limited. Having a filter that could be tunable across those bands means not having to put in another 100+ filters in your phone with many different switches. A filter like the one we created is the most viable path to using the FR3 band.”

Read more at Penn Engineering Today.